Category Archives: Claude Chabrol

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)

“Depraved to the bone.”

Shortly after beginning Claude Chabrol’s film A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille Coupee de Deux), I realised that this had to be a re-working of the love-triangle between eminent, middle-aged, married architect Stanford White, Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit and deranged millionaire Harry K Thaw. There’s a tasty version of their story, set in the Gilded Age of a colourful New York. It’s a film called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing reviewed here. If you watch the film, you’ll understand the title, and the film stars the gorgeous Joan Collins, young enough to carry off the innocence required in the role of the ingenue who’s seduced by a worldly rake.

Back to Claude Chabrol:

In A Girl Cut in Two, the three main characters are Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), the young effervescent weather girl on the local television station, seasoned (and kinky as it turns out) middle-aged married author Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Bereand) and the unbalanced heir to a pharmaceutical company, Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel). The film begins with Charles Saint-Denis and his wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli) at their country home in Lyon when his literary agent Capucine (Mathilda May) arrives to help Charles promote his new book.

One look at the literary agent, and we know something is not quite right. This is an attractive older woman who dresses to publicise her rampant sexuality rather than her professionalism. In one scene, Capucine sunbathes in a swimsuit that barely captures her breasts, and she does this right next to Charles’s bikini-clad wife. As the plot spins out, however, it becomes clear that Charles is a bit of a swinger, and what’s more the missus knows and doesn’t care.

Poor little Gabrielle is woefully ill-prepared when she steps into Charles’s open marriage.  They talk one day at a book signing held in her mother’s (Maire Bunel) bookshop. Charles has previously spotted and noted Gabrielle, but it’s at the bookshop that he approaches this young girl. Also at the bookshop is Paul Gaudens, and he too makes a beeline for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle begins an affair with Charles, and soon she’s accompanying him on expeditions to collect rare and valuable erotica at auctions, and being “instructed” in the art of various kink. I should add that most of this is kept off-screen, and the fact that this is largely left to the imagination makes the tale darker.

Charles really is a revolting character. While Gabrielle imagines that she’s in an affair with an unhappily married man, in reality, she’s little more than a passing fad. While we don’t know exactly what Charles tells Gabrielle about his marriage and his wife, the actions he takes to extricate himself from the affair make it clear that he is deceiving her. He might waffle on about choice and liberation, but he’s extremely manipulative. Gabrielle suffers a breakdown of sorts, and then there’s good old Paul Gaudens waiting to pick up the pieces….

A Girl Cut In Two manages to exude a macabre flavour and this is achieved by not revealing everything that takes place and instead dropping veiled hints about some of the conduct that takes place behind closed doors. What, for example, is really going on when Gaudens is hustled out from the restaurant by his bodyguard? His mother instructs the bodyguard to take Gaudens to the car for cigars. Does the bodyguard shoot Gaudens up with a tranquilizer, or is Gaudens just locked in the car for punishment? These are the sorts of intriguing hints that Chabrol drops throughout the film.

In spite of the subject matter, no one gets very passionate here. It’s all conducted with a certain amount of restraint, and is consequently delivered as a morality tale as the film follows the Stanford White-Thaw-Nesbit triangle. The confrontations at the restaurant, the insane jealousy, the domineering mother, it’s all there. Gabrielle and Saint-Denis are updated 21st century versions of Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, of course, but the loony spoilt millionaire with the equally loony mother cannot be disguised or even transcribed into another “type.”

For Chabrol fans, the film should not be missed, but the story can be faulted for the fashion in which it sails on the surface of its characters’ emotions. Gabrielle, for example, has choices that were unavailable to Evelyn Nesbit at the turn of the 20th century. But the film never explores Gabrielle’s decisions and instead avoids mining the psychology of its characters.

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Merci Pour le Chocolat (2000)

 “In this house, I serve the chocolate.”

merciIn Merci Pour Le Chocolat Mika Muller (Isabelle Huppert), the owner of a chocolate factory remarries Andre Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), a famous pianist. Their youthful first marriage ended in divorce, and Andre subsequently married Lisbeth. Three years after Lisbeth’s sudden accidental death, Mika and Andre remarry, and they live in Mika’s splendid house along with Guillaume, Andre and Lisbeth’s troubled teenaged son.

Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), the daughter of a local foresic expert accidentally discovers that she was born in the same hospital as Guillaume, and that there was some sort of question of a mix up of the Pollet and the Polonski babies. Jeanne is also a brilliant pianist, and she is intrigued with the possibility of the mixed-up baby theory. She approaches the Polonski household and soon Andre takes her under his wing.

The first 3/4s of Merci Pour Le Chocolat is very strong. The stage is set for some nefarious deeds to take place, and the build-up of tension and suspense in the film was incredible. Claude Chabrol is one of my favourite directors, and so I really looked forward to the DVD release of this film. Isabelle Huppert is one of my absolute favourite actresses, and I try to get my hands on all of her films. She is really so wonderful with these sort of roles–perfect on the outside, but it’s the inner mind that proves most interesting and twisted. Mika Muller is just a little too nice to everyone. Why is Guillaume so estranged from his father? Why does Mika insist that everyone taste her own special formula of hot chocolate? Why is Mika so curious about Jeanne’s parentage? I was intrigued by this film, but then suddenly it was over. The denouement was not so much shocking as far too abrupt, and the reactions of the main characters to the events were just too wooden and unbelievable. This film could have been so much better, and that’s the really annoying thing. The acting was stellar (apart from the final scenes), and all the characters were interesting, but so many facets of the story led nowhere and ultimately it’s as though a big chunk is missing.

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Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

 “I’m waiting for a special occasion.”

French director, Claude Chabrol is often compared to Alfred Hitchcock–and that comparison seems justified in the 1960, early Chabrol film, Les Bonnes Femmes. This is the story of four Parisian shop girls who spend their days avoiding their grabby boss, staring at the clock, and dreaming of love and romance.

bonnes femmesJane is the boldest of the four girls. She tends to lead the vulnerable, gentle, and more docile Jacqueline. Rita is the envy of the other girls as she is engaged to the stuffy, pretentious Henri. Ginette is secretive about how she spends her evenings. During the day, the girls loll over the counters at the shop, harass any salesmen who come in, and bother the cashier, Madame Louise, with questions about the fetish object she hordes in her handbag.

At night, the girls roam the streets looking for love. The streets of Paris are the happy hunting ground for aggressive and predatory males. Jane’s boldness leads Jacqueline to spend the evening with two men who are clearly up to no good. Throughout the film, a mysterious motorcyclist follows Jacqueline, and she assumes he is a protector.

Many of the scenes portray social occasions with hideous undercurrents just below the surface. I thought the use of masks in the nightclub was quite brilliant, and the scene in the swimming baths chilling. Chabrol’s message is quite clear–women who search for love and companionship may find a little more than they bargain for. The film’s tense atmosphere and sense of impending doom deepen as the story develops. Les Bonnes Femmes is an extremely dark and deeply disturbing film–Chabrol at his best.

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L’Enfer (1994)

“She’s flown the coop.”

Paul (Francois Cluzet) and Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) Prieur own and manage a lakeside hotel–a romantic place with an idyllic location that appeals to lovers. Paul is under a great deal of strain–the hotel is a tremendous financial burden, and every time Paul turns his back for a moment, Nelly seems to be running off to town on some shopping spree or another. Paul begins to suspect that his beautiful wife may be having an affair with a local car mechanic, and Paul’s jealousy pushes him over the edge into madness.

Emmanuelle Beart is one of the most beautiful actresses in French cinema. Unfortunately this often translates to roles in which Beart is a face only. In Claude Chabrol’s “L’Enfer” however, Beart is allowed to act, and she does so beautifully. When the film begins, she is the somewhat indulged wife–she dresses provocatively with plunging necklines and mini-skirts. When Paul objects to her absences or suspicious stories, she reacts playfully, making faces before she flounces off. The role of Nelly allows Beart to show her acting range, and during the course of the film she deteriorates from a giddy girl to a pathetically withdrawn terrified woman. Nelly is one of Beart’s best roles. Francois Cluzet is excellent as the suffocating husband who feels impotent in the face of his wife’s desirability.

Many professional critics call Chabrol, the ‘French Hitchcock’ and it’s easy to see why in L’Enfer. The setting of the film is an excellent choice. After all, Nelly and Paul’s marriage is semi-public property. Neither of them can sneeze without one of the guests observing it. Paul and Nelly are stuck in this haven of relaxation, but underneath the surface, festering tension is ready to explode. L’Enfer seems like a simple story of an abusive husband who becomes consumed with jealousy. Jealousy indeed is a monster, for the more Paul feeds it, the hungrier it becomes. Nelly appears innocent–but is she? Chabrol toys with various possibilities here, and the surreal ending leaves even more questions. Fans of French cinema should enjoy the film, and will find much to speculate about long after the final scene.

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The Eye of Vichy (1993)

 “Throwing you into the arms of Communism.”

Claude Chabrol’s documentary, The Eye of Vichy focuses on the French government of Marshal Petain. After the collapse of the French government in 1940, Petain took the lead, and with the war between the Germans and the French essentially over, Petain’s government began collaborating with the Germans. The documentary shows that under the boot of the occupying force, and with Petain’s direction, France became–essentially–an ally of Germany. The documentary consists of newsreel and footage of the times, and gives a strong sense of the level of propaganda coming forth from the Vichy government.

The material is compiled chronologically with very little voiceover. Most of the footage is self-explanatory. Almost immediately following the establishment of the Vichy government, laws came into effect identifying Jews. It’s fascinating to watch the chronology of events and the insidious development of collaboration. Quite frankly it’s rather a shock to realise the degree of cooperation that developed between Petain’s government and the Germans–at first it begins with handing over all German political refugees and registering Jews–to France becoming the greatest supplier of arms and goods to Germany.

Some of the newsreel is simple–reports of allied bombings–with the emphasis on British pilots killing innocent French citizens. But a great deal of the newsreel shows Petain drumming up support for Germany with French volunteers for the Eastern Front. In several scenes, Petain also promotes the shipping of volunteer skilled workers to German factories–the deal was for every 3 skilled workers that were sent to Germany, one POW would be returned to France.

The newsreel regarding the “Jewish Problem” is sickening. While some government footage promises to send 1 million French children to the countryside, Jewish children are rounded up, stuffed on trains and shipped directly to the death camps. One film even shows “The Life of a Jew” and compares them to vermin that need to be eradicated.

The film’s lack of form results in an end product that is less than perfect. In some of the newsreel for example, Petain speaks out against the French resistance, and the execution of 50 French citizens is organised to pressure people to become whistleblowers against the resistance. While similar incidents are revealed in the film, a short explanation of events would really assist in showing the complete sinister machinations behind Petain’s actions. For it is in these actions that Petain is shown as being a fawning German puppet rather than simply being misguided and negotiating the “best deal” that he can for a defeated people.

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The Color of Lies (1999)

“You never know who you live with.”

In the picturesque coastal village of St Malo in Brittany–the unimaginable happens–a 10-year-old child is found raped and murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on the girl’s reclusive, mentally fragile art teacher Rene Sterne (Jacques Gamblin). He was the last person to see the girl alive, and the fact that he’s a little odd doesn’t help matters.

Rene struggles to perfect his style, and he teaches art classes on the side, but this source of income dries up when parents begin withdrawing their children from Rene’s classes. Rene’s physician wife, Viviane (Sandrine Bonnaire) is serenely supportive of her husband, but her behaviour masks discontent. Newly assigned Inspector Lesage (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) investigates the murder case and quickly discovers the pros and cons of conducting a murder investigation in a village. Did a passing stranger snatch and kill the child–or horrible to contemplate–is one of the villagers responsible for this heinous crime? She probes Rene’s delicate psyche by noting: “teachers subconsciously seduce their pupils.”

Inspector Lesage finds that some villagers clam up to protect their friends and others gossip freely. Some of the villagers point fingers towards successful Parisian journalist/writer Desmot (Antoine de Caunes). He’s the closest thing to an outsider, and even though he owns a remote cliff top home, he drifts in and out of the area. Desmot is arrogant, successful, and self-satisfied, and he’s coldly interested in the crime in a repulsive way. It’s hard to like Desmot–modesty isn’t one of his qualities and he describes himself as “explosive, combustible, and subversive.” Some villagers fete Desmot as a local celebrity–while others see him as a source of extra income. Desmot claims an interest in Rene’s art, but this is just a cover for a dogged pursuit of Viviane. Desmot and Rene are an interesting contrast. Desmot is perfectly willing to write what sells–he writes for both left and right wing publications–whereas Rene strives for an artistic ideal.

Director Claude Chabrol is known as the French Alfred Hitchcock, and Chabrol’s masterful ability to build suspense creates an intriguing yet deceptively simple tale. Chabrol makes maximum use of location here–the gorgeous coastline, and the remote landscape all contribute to the sense of isolation. Such a crime as the murder of a child seems so horribly out of place against the shimmering sea, and the windswept coastline, and yet at night, the fog rolls in and lightening even cuts off electricity. There are some splendid touches here–Chabrol’s subtle emphasis on mother-daughter relationships ensures that the menace of a sadistic killer remains at the heart of the story. Chabrol fans will not be disappointed with The Colour of Lies. DVD extras include: A Making of the Documentary on The Color of Lies, a presentation by film scholar Joel Magny, the original French trailer, and a Stills Gallery. In French with English subtitles.

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Inspecteur Lavardin (1986)

“I’m willing to forget my code of ethics to avoid inconvenience.”

In a sleepy little coastal town, famous Catholic author, Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine) is found dead–naked on the beach and with the word pig written on his body. Suspicion immediately falls on the members of an acting troupe who were scheduled to perform a play in town until Raoul brought charges of blasphemy and used his clout to have the play cancelled. Inspecteur Lavardin (Jean Poiret) is called in to solve the crime. Coincidentally, Lavardin is a former lover of Raoul’s new widow, Helene (Bernadette Lafonte). Lavardin takes advantage of the relationship to move into the Mons house and gather clues to find the killer.

There’s a peculiar atmosphere to the household. Helene lives there with her brother, Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) and a daughter from her first marriage, Veronique (Hermine Clair). It’s obvious that no one mourns Raoul’s absence–in fact, apart from the empty chair at the dinner table, no one misses him at all. Helene is still mourning the death of her first husband who died 5 years before. Helene’s odd brother Claude paints eyeballs all day long. Is he a harmless eccentric or is he a dangerous parasite? Meanwhile mousy Veronique sneaks out of the house to attend a local disco, and everyone pretends to be unaware of her midnight activities. Lavardin scrapes away at the family’s respectable veneer to discover the truth behind Raoul’s murder. After a little snooping, Lavardin discovers that Raoul Mons wasn’t quite the moralist he portrayed himself to be, and “his public image conflicted with his nature.”

French director Claude Chabrol is often called the French Alfred Hitchcock, and while the film isn’t suspenseful, the plot contains an intricate web of deceit. The interest here is in the film’s characters. Everyone has something to hide, and Lavardin digs away patiently through the lies. Lavardin is a truly marvelous character–very low key, and easy to underestimate. He strikes up a mentor relationship with a gormless sidekick he names Watson, and Lavardin’s benign persona causes the suspects to drop their guard. Fans of Chabrol should enjoy Inspecteur Lavardin. It’s a respectable addition to this director’s long, impressive filmmaking career. In French with English subtitles.

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